Choosing Your Target:
Process and Product in Haiku

First published in South by Southeast 13:1, February 2006, pages 14–18. Originally written in October of 2003, and revised in November and December of 2005. I’ve made a few minor edits since publication, especially to note that my “pet store” poem was originally written in June, not in autumn.       +       +

“A good poem may begin in self-expression, but it ends as art, which means it isn’t really for the writer anymore but for the reader who steps into and makes the experience of the poem his or her own.” —Mark Doty

Poetry circles beyond haiku have long debated the question of process versus product, and how poets (and other artists) might balance the valuation of one over the other. Perhaps this is a false dichotomy, in the sense that no poem (the finished product) can exist without some kind of process to create it, thus both are important. Similarly, at any given point along the process of creating a poem, the poem at each point can always be considered a finished product—the fruition of work done at least up to that moment. So perhaps the debate should not be framed as process versus product at all. However, being aware of the roles of both process and product is important in the creation of any art.

        As for haiku, both process and product are vital, but it may well be true that valuing the finished product slightly more than the process is necessary for those who wish to write haiku as poetry/literature or who seek publication for their work. If one is writing haiku as therapy, as a sort of personal diary, or simply as an awareness practice, or for some other motive [see my “Haiku Stances” essay], then this question would seem not to apply. But if one seeks to write poetry to have a desired effect upon an audience (or an effect reasonably close to one’s intent), if one seeks publication for one’s haiku, or otherwise wishes to create poetry as literature, then being aware of process and product is a worthwhile consideration. The process to create a haiku may take 99 percent or more of the effort in making the haiku, but valuing product over process, at least slightly (perhaps at least 51 percent), can have a positive effect as the poet crafts and edits each individual poem.

        An example haiku may clarify some of this process/product discussion. The following poem of mine has been repeatedly anthologized and published in numerous places:

                spring breeze—

                the pull of her hand

                as we near the pet store

Do you see and feel this poem? Does it feel authentic to you? Are you there, feeling that person’s hand, remembering moments when you’ve felt the pull of someone else’s hand, rather than merely being told about it in some abstract fashion? Or does the poem make you realize that yes, you have felt this, but hadn’t really stopped to properly notice it? Stop a moment and ask yourself these questions deeply before reading further. Do you see and feel and understand the moment? (The poem has been successful enough that I believe most people do.)

        I also use this poem (and one other particular poem) in my haiku workshops to generate a discussion of what is implied by haiku. In picturing this poem, most people see a child. Do you? Where does that image of a child come from? The poem doesn’t actually mention a child, though “pet store” suggests kittens and puppies, which we associate with childhood. The poem also doesn’t explain who “her” is, yet the concrete feeling of the pull of the hand suggests the eager anticipation that we might associate with a child. And even the season of “spring” emphasizes the reader’s thinking of youth or childhood because of this season’s associations with beginnings and childhood.

        But the poem never began this way. The original experience was actually in June, and I was not with a child but my girlfriend at the time. We were in downtown Palo Alto, California, on a foggy and windy evening, and she was eager to get to a nearby coffee shop to warm up with a cappuccino. There, on the sidewalk, I somehow deeply felt (noticed) the pull of her hand, perhaps because I normally walked faster than she did, and this pull of eagerness ahead of me was not something I normally felt from my girlfriend. But at that moment, she was pulling on my hand, and I became aware of her youthful anticipation and desire for . . . something. What’s more, she wanted to share that desire with me, so she didn’t let go of my hand, and that’s a key part of what makes the tactile pull of the hand even more fulfilling, both in the original experience and in the poem. This concrete action thus symbolized or represented something intimate and of value, and I wanted to capture it in a poem.

        I mostly work poems out in my head, but at no time was this poem written down as “the pull of her hand / as we near the coffee shop.” Saying “coffee shop” did occur to me, because that’s where we were heading, but it immediately seemed wrong, or flat, for though it helped motivate that experience, it seemed that a better poem was possible than talking about a coffee shop. I began with “the pull of her hand” and quickly thought that a pet shop would work (I don’t remember how quickly this occurred to me). The poem wasn’t entirely “written” (even in my head) at the moment, but was finished a little later, after the image and its wording had run around my head for some time. I also changed the season to spring to associate better with childhood and eager anticipation. The result, for most readers, is to see a child and feel every ounce of a child’s happy, eager, and enthusiastic anticipation, which was the core of what I wanted to capture—a joyful eagerness much like that of bouncing puppies you see in pet shop windows. Because of my valuing the finished product (asserting the core of what I wanted to communicate), I changed other aspects of the experience and poem to help emphasize the core image-moment and feeling. Even “breeze” is a lighter word than “wind” (it was actually windy, not breezy), adding further associations with youthfulness and childhood. Someone who values process more than product might have stuck with the so-called “actual” experience and would have written the following poem:

                summer wind—

                the pull of her hand

                as we near the coffee shop

This version isn’t bad, but I feel it is an inferior poem to what I wrote (the two versions are also too similar to retain both). Yet even this version isn’t “verifiable,” and the actual experience could easily have been a pet store in spring and I could be arguing instead in favour of changing that experience (if it had been the actual one) to a coffee shop in summer. This helps prove the point that it’s the effect of the poem that really matters, and though perhaps either version might work reasonably well, I do believe the pet store in spring was the better choice. In any event, I believe my poem remains authentic because it preserves and emphasizes the most important aspect of the experience—the pull of a hand that indicated enthusiastic childlike desire, a desire that the person wants to share with someone else. Some readers may value the finished poem less if they know that the “actual” experience differed from the experience depicted in the poem, but my estimation is that, when they make such value judgments, they are not reading the poem as a poem, but as a journal entry or as reportage. For the reader’s sake, haiku should create—not merely report—an experience. If a reader values process over product, and insists that all aspects of the poem be faithful to a single personal experience and also be autobiographical, they are free to dismiss such a poem if they know it “didn’t really happen” in the way the poem presents itself. But this, I feel, is their loss, and a loss to poetry, because these same poets would also have to dismiss most of the poems in Bashō’s Oku no hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Far North), which he revised and resequenced heavily, and such famous poems as Buson’s haiku about feeling his dead wife’s comb under his heel (his wife was not actually dead). Moreover, in reading the majority of poems that one reads in books or journals, how can one ever know what “really” happened? What matters is the effect of the poem, how it comes across to the reader, not strictly where it came from. With this understanding comes the freeing realization that you can massage the poem for poetic ends, and thus value the finished product at least slightly more than just process.

        Some people might still argue that my poem, because of how it differs from the experience that motivated it, is somehow not “authentic.” That might depend how you define “authentic.” If you mean “authentic” in reference to “what really happened,” then perhaps it isn’t, because there wasn’t a pet store and it wasn’t spring. But in reading poetry, as I mentioned, only the poem can be judged. And does the poem itself feel authentic, and true to experience? I don’t mean true to the experience or an experience, but true to experience—or true to life and the way we all know it to be. I do believe the poem is authentic, because most people can relate to an experience like it (it’s true to life), and because the most important aspect of the poem, feeling the pull of the hand, is utterly accurate in its depiction and in what it represents. The other parts of the poem were changed to emphasize this core, yet balanced by not spelling out too much (such as saying “the pull of the child’s hand”), thus by its restraint the poem lets something be implied. If this were not the case, then readers would not be free to imagine an older person as well as a child, though most people picture a child in this poem. But picturing a child isn’t magic—the poem has deliberate clues that help lead to seeing that part of the image, even while not picturing a child is perfectly fine, too.

        I believe other poems, even by those poets who might not recognize the distinction between process and product, can be improved by aiming at some greater goal than “what really happened.” The changes may be subtle, or sometimes no changes may be needed at all (compared to “what really happened”), but recognizing the degree to which changes are needed or beneficial—or recognizing that no changes are needed—arises from having a goal to create a finished product.

        My greater point in this discussion is to discourage the thinking that “what really happened” has to be slavishly preserved in haiku. Not all of it needs to be. If you are writing poetry as some sort of literature, rather than merely writing poetic-seeming diary entries, then—where necessary (meaning not always)—you will adjust the poem to say what the poem needs to say, perhaps even without regard to whatever might have happened to instigate the poem. If you do this, you demonstrate your valuation of the finished product. Asserting such a priority can create better poems compared to having insufficient or no valuation of the finished product.

        Through all of this, too, the ego is absent. In my poem, I’m trying to convey a clear feeling of youthful eagerness. I hope the poem gives people a specific feeling, and I know that it does—and has for many people. Surely this wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t crafted the poem in specific ways, even when it meant altering “reality” (which can never be proved in a haiku, anyway). The finished poem succeeds, as I believe it does, for two reasons: because of the value of the original core experience (the pull of the hand) and because of choices made in crafting the poem to achieve a specific goal as a finished product—all in support of that core experience. You may not happen to care for the poem, which is a separate matter (for not everything will appeal to everyone), but for those who relate to the poem, the success of the poem arises out of these two chief factors—one of which results from valuing product.

        There’s a bit of a paradox in all of this, mind you. You aim at a finished product, yet if you aim too hard, it will fail. Eugen Herrigel’s Zen and the Art of Archery talks about this. Somehow it all becomes one—breathing, shooting, and hitting the target. In that sense, from a Zen point of view, the seemingly dualistic dichotomy of process versus product does not exist except as a distracting mental construct. It is process and product that gets you to the goal, and because some haiku poets neglect the product side of this equation, they sometimes miss the target. The truth would seem that the goal of archery is to hit the target. The target (or product), however, is not just at the end of the arrow’s flight.